Cassadee Pope could be the changing face of country radio

She headlines the CMT Women of Country tour in Ybor City.

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click to enlarge Cassadee Pope could be the changing face of country radio
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If country radio can evolve to truly include women in its programming, then Cassadee Pope will be a part of that conversation. The 29-year-old West Palm Beach native is a pop-punk alum (she was in Blake and early 2000s group Hey Monday, the latter of which played sold-out shows with Fall Out Boy), a winner of The Voice and also a survivor of the Big Country machine.

In 2013 Pope released her debut LP, Frame by Frame, via Republic Nashville, which was founded by Universal, but her latest album is the culmination of a purge that saw Pope adopt new management, publishing and also join a PR company (BT) whose roster includes Adele, Kacey Musgraves, Zedd and more. Now Pope is bringing the deeply personal Stages (released independently in February) to Ybor City as part of CMT’s Women of Country Tour.

She took a break during a tour with Maren Morris to check in with CL, and we talked about the industry’s evolution, her own journey to Stages and more. Read our Q&A, and get more information on the show at Orpheum, below.

CMT Women of Country Tour w/Cassadee Pope/Clare Dunn/Hannah Ellis. Next Thurs. April 11, 7 p.m. $15-$40. Orpheum, 1915 E. 7th Ave., Ybor City.

Hey Cassadee. How’s San Francisco?

Awesome. We got in yesterday actually and we had a radio thing last night. It was a little rainy and gross, but today it's actually sunny, so we'll do some exploring.

Are you still rocking the Kia Optima when you're not on the road? Because "One More Red Light" became a different song to me after learning about that car.

Haha, that's funny. Yeah, I mean I've had that since The Voice. I was in between L.A. and Nashville when I first got it. Then I left it in L.A. for those long strips to Nashville, so it doesn't have a lot of mileage on it.

Since you’re talking about L.A. Thinking back to your move to L.A., and that solo tour where there were five people at some shows. That situation made for good timing on that repeat audition for The Voice, but now you’re on a tour with Maren. In April you’re playing a 750-ish cap room in Ybor City as part of this CMT Women of Country tour that is also going to the U.K — a place where Hey Monday played to sold-out rooms. I think you’ve said you want to do stadiums one day, pull the Saturday Night Live double, all that. What are you trying to accomplish in this phase of the album release cycle?

I mean, I'm feel like I'm, I'm doing it. What I wanted was for people to feel connected to the record and for people to say, "This is the most authentic we've ever heard to you," and I'm hearing that a lot. A lot more opportunities are also presenting themselves, like the Maren tour and the CMT tour — those came about because people believe in me, but also because of the record and people liking what I'm doing. The things like SNL and me wanting to win a Grammy someday and all that stuff — that could be years before that happens, but those are definitely things I'm working towards. And I'm appreciating the steps that I get to take because I haven't done a headlining tour in years. And I know that that kind of lays down the groundwork, and I'm excited to be able to do that.

Will there be a cello player on this tour?

I think there's gonna be two guitars, bass and drums.

Cool. And, obviously, this record is a great, independent step for you. On it, you kind of just stopped worrying about what other people were thinking. In Hey Monday, you’re pretty much a teenager writing songs, and now you’re doing things, songwriting-wise, that you didn’t know you could do. Thinking about young songwriters out there, what are the steps you took, the technical, boring, stuff that led to growth in your songwriting?

I mean, even in Hey Monday, when I went to New York to start the record and writing. I was a ways away from writing a song that had structure, that could be a little repetitive in certain areas and could have that, sort of, hook that people look for in songs. I was just kind of writing what came to me. I wasn't really worrying about the structure of the song; that whole process really helped me to learn how to write a song. And one of the things that I knew worked for me when I was having trouble was to just write down my feelings and my thoughts — and not in a poetic way, but just in a conversational way — and a lot of the things we say every day, and a lot of things we think, could be a song. We don't realize it, and we kind of need somebody else in the room to help us see that.

So I learned to co-write in Hey Monday by co-writing with my guitar player and producers at the time. And then when I went to Nashville after The Voice, that was even more of a lesson on songwriting, because I was so used to writing a certain way, and it wasn't a huge difference, but I think the biggest difference was making sure that I was making the lyrics understandable for the listener. Not being too cryptic to the point where people don't understand what I'm talking about. That was even more of an outlet for me because I always really struggled with almost the Fall Out Boy kind of lyric where you're like, "I don't know if I know what they're talking about, but it sounds kinda cool." I was never very good at that. So going to Nashville was sort of like, “Hey, it's OK to write the songs that are just basically a conversation.” That really opened up a lot of creative doors for me.

You started singing at four years old and started playing guitar at 10. People forget about Blake, that other band you were in here in Florida. I know your dad likes to honky-tonk with you up in Nashville, but are you're expecting any of the South Florida Fair, original fans in the West Palm crew to come out for the shows?

Um. I don't know. That would be awesome. I think a lot of people live in Nashville now. Well the ones that were in Hey Monday. I know that Alex [Lipshaw] and Mike [Gentile] are in Nashville. I have not, other than Mike, really, had any contact with anybody that I was in Blake with, but I would imagine they wouldn't. I don't know I don't know how into country music they are. They never were when we were in the band. So I don't know if they would be into that kind of music anyway, but it would be cool. It'd be fun to look out during the set and see people that I used to play in bands with.

You shed everything for this album cycle. Publishing management, a significant other. You had that trust in yourself, which felt good. You’re on BT PR now, which is a small but super-powerful roster. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Daniel is managing you, you also stayed with CAA. And now you have a branding and digital team, but what's the rest of the team look like? What does your version of being an independent artist feel like for you right now?

I mean, it's really exactly, you know, what you said. I sort of put the team together with my own knowledge of of people who I know do a great job. When I brought Daniel on the team, he also really helped me to learn about people that would be a good fit.

And I was always with a label. With the label comes their own creative team, and their own publicity, and their own everything really. So it was a real chance for me to kind of custom-make a team that knew what the brand was, what the music was, and it knew that it wasn't formulaic, which I love. And it just kind of gives me the freedom to really, really hone in on my sound and my craft and my creative and across the whole thing. We control the whole board and can think about outlets that we could take advantage of and focus less on, all without worrying about label things like, "Do they understand what I'm doing? I don't think they get it. I don't really like this, I don't like that this image, or whatever."

Having so much creative control is really getting the point across the best that I've ever been able to because it is a handpicked team. So I think it's just like the most "me" project I've I've ever released.

And clearly it's working. You've talked about getting acknowledgement of it from your peers and and then the labels, I would imagine, are calling now that Stages is out. I don't know what your plans are for a re-release...


But what would it be like for you if your peers or the labels weren't validating the album right now? I mean, I know you're proud of it, but I know you've kind of talked to this idea of kind of feeling good about getting that positive feedback.

Yeah, I mean, it's important to me, you know. I'm the kind of person that kind of keeps my head down, and does my own thing, and tries to not look around and compare because everybody's different and everybody's careers look different, but there's something really special about living in Nashville and putting out something that peers that you look up to. Songwriters you look up to saying good things about it.

I've been in that town for a little over six years; it's a 10 year town, like they say, so I feel like I still got some years under my belt to you know, make my stamp. Even in six years, so much has happened. There's been a lot of ups and downs, and there's been a lot of hard times that people in that town have really helped me through, so to have something out where they're like, "This is it. Yes. This is what we've been waiting for from you." That's just super validating and, to me, a success in itself, so I'm super happy with the feedback I've gotten.

It's like, "Gosh, if you guys would've stayed out of my way the first time..."

Haha. Yeah, there were a few obstacles over the years. It feels good to just not have that right now in this current stage — no pun intended, but kind of intended — this current stage in my life to not have a lot of people, sort of, giving their opinions and saying what they think I should sing or say or whatever. I love teamwork. And I love collaborating. I love the team, but I have to say, they give me their opinions, but in a way that's just really helpful. It lets me really do my own thing. I'm glad to I have people on the team that don't really overthink a lot of things. They kind of just let me do it, which is awesome.

And my understanding is that you went to CRS. And if I believe what I read in Rolling Stone, I read that R.J. Curtis said something to the effect of that, he couldn't figure out a way to effectively address the gender discrepancy in country radio. And I didn't know if you had to take away from that. I read about like a "Beer Thirty" panel or something like that. It just kind of blew my mind that that was kind of his response to some of that, especially considering what's going on in country radio right now.

I mean, it is interesting. It's interesting to hear a lot of different perspectives. I just did a radio gig last night, with Nate Deaton in San Jose. And hearing his perspective is interesting. I mean, everybody has a theory. And I don't know, which... I don't, a lot of times, agree with a lot of peoples' theories. I think there's definitely still sort of like a good old boys club thing that happens.

And, you know, I feel like I'm on the fortunate side of things where, yes, I haven't had my own solo no. 1 song on country radio, but they've always been really supportive of me. I also know that the past has been, sort of up and down on the political side, on my end. And, you know, there's been a lot of things kind of standing in the way of me getting that. But I also think that there are a lot of people not taking responsibility, and everybody's sort of afraid to say what they actually, think and feel. And all we can really focus on is, like, making the best music we can In the past, I've really tried to do my thing, but also, like cater to country radio and make sure that it's country radio-friendly. And on this record, I didn't do that. And it just feels like, if it works great, but if it doesn't, then it's still what I wanted, and it's me.

So none of us have an answer to why we're not on the radio more. But I think it definitely starts with people taking risks on both artists side, the radio side and the label side.People not looking at it like a female is a risk, but sort of getting that mentality out of here, like finding a girl or playing a girl is is a risk. So yeah, it's... I don't know. It's not going to be overnight. But I think there's a change happening for sure.

Yeah, so obviously, the same kind of stuff happens in like the pop punk world, every kind of music, right? And not that country has to go through on but it seems like outside of Webster PR, that industry has like largely avoided like the big #MeToo moment. And obviously Katie Armiger's story is unfortunate and not that uncommon. And nobody wants to read that story. You know, but do you feel like there will ever be a reckoning in country music? And if not, is it just because there are pockets of the industry that are like pretty pure, and keep those kinds of people out?

I think that in every genre and every workplace, not just music, there's definitely stuff that goes on. People that can be inappropriate, but I think, in the country community... people sort of take on things head on. And if there's a conflict or anything, it's usually done in a, sort of, more of a quiet way, where the people are really just like, talking to each other about it. And that can be really hard, really difficult.

I've not thankfully experienced anything, but I've seen friends who who have had something happen. And you know, they know, they know that it's like, they could take somebody down and they just sort of choose to, you know, talk to the person and say, "Hey, that wasn't cool," and move on. And whether that's the right way to handle things or not, I think everybody's different. I think you handle it the way you want to handle it. And I don't really know if it happens as much in country music; I don't really know the reasons behind that. but I think it could have something to do with it being, like, a very family-oriented kind of genre. But yeah. It happens. I've heard things. It's unfortunate, but you know, it's just the way it is.

This record touches on a lot of self-discovery for you. It deals with difficult times which you came out of. I think in the past, you thought you loved yourself, but you learned that you didn’t, and figured out it was surface level love, putting out confidence. You went to therapy, etc. How often do you have to check back in with that and re-center? I guess it's only been a month since the album's out, but I would imagine that emotionally, putting out an album, no matter how prepared you are, there still have to be things that kind of shake you a little bit.

Definitely. You can't help yourself. And like I said, I've tried to not do this, but you look around at somebody else's release week when they release the record how big it looks, and how much more they sold than you — all the stuff. I think another thing that really helps me to stay proud and stay focused is that I am doing this independently. While I'm really proud of the accomplishments and how much we've been able to do. I also know there's limitations when you're missing certain things. And you know, that's that's why I'm excited, still, for this next chapter because there are some conversations happening, ways to expand the team and things that will definitely help with with reaching a broader audience.

But yeah, I try and check in with myself every day, you know, if I wake up feeling weird, or if I throughout the day, if something really small bothers me, and it just sort of festers all day I'll, I'll just remind yourself of why I'm doing this, and how lucky I am. How, how crazy it is that I get to do something so fun for a living, and it pays the bills, and I'm able to take care of myself. But yeah, it's important, like, you're never done working on yourself as much as we get to a good place. And we're like, "Yeah, I'm killing it. I feel good." Life will throw you so many things in the future that just remind you like, "Oh, no, you're not done." So I yeah, I just, I definitely look at it like in a realistic way. Like, "Hey, I feel good now and nothing's gonna be thrown at me." But yeah, it's good. Self-care thing is has been a really big for me over the last few years and it's done wonders.

Cool. Well, thanks for your time. Look forward to you kicking the tour off here, and I look forward to, kind of, watching your career unfold in this new era that country music is going through. This metamorphosis for that big ol' machine. No pun intended with your old label.

Well, thank you. I appreciate it.

Yeah, have a great day.

You, too. Thanks.

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About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
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